Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host and Miss America 1989, resigned as chairwoman of the Miss America Organization in early June.
Carlson’s “Miss America 2.0” sought to empower women and change the focus away from physical beauty but failed to combat the ongoing trend of lackluster event attendance and shrinking TV ratings.
The public should not view Carlson’s resignation as a repudiation of the organization’s efforts to move Miss America forward — or worse, conclude that women can’t lead effectively.
First, legacy organizations typically struggle to stay relevant as times change. Not everyone wants to move forward at the same pace (or at all). But tastes and expectations constantly evolve in life and every business must adjust if they want to remain in the game.
Carlson took the position of executive chair of the Board of Trustees in 2018, after pageant stakeholders called for the resignation of former CEO and Chairman Sam Haskell. The MAO had endured a series of sexist scandals under Haskell. Many welcomed having a leadership team of women at the top.
You’ve heard of the glass ceiling? That’s the idea that women can only advance so much up the corporate ladder before they are stuck. Here, Carlson and Regina Hopper, CEO and president, were headed for a glass cliff.
The glass cliff is what researchers at the University of Exeter called the tendency for corporations to appoint women leaders during times of crisis — when expectations are high and usually public, and time is short.
“This paper argues that while women are now achieving more high-profile positions, they are more likely than men to find themselves on a ‘glass cliff,’ such that their positions are risky or precarious,” said researchers. Other studies have corroborated these results.
While enthusiasts initially saw hope for the revamped pageant, a schism quickly formed in the organization, with allegations of mismanagement, secrecy and mistreatment of Miss America 2018 Cara Mund. Many involved with the pageant disagreed with Carlson’s decision to do away with the swimsuit competition.
“We are no longer a pageant; we are a competition. We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance,” Carlson told “Good Morning America” in June 2018. “That means we will no longer have a swimsuit competition.”
Carlson and her team were criticized internally and externally for the decision to end the swimsuit competition, as well as others. Perhaps she wasn’t a good leader. Or perhaps not everyone was ready to see their century-old organization change so quickly.
Or, maybe it was the glass cliff.
Either way, Shantel Krebs — a former South Dakota secretary of state, Miss South Dakota 1997 and MAO’s new chairwoman — would do well to learn from this recent experience. Transition is difficult and must be handled professionally. It won’t be easy and may not be popular. But moving forward is the only way to survive.